Friday, March 20, 2015

UI officials: Tuition off table for now, but plenty of cuts are possible

A tuition increase is off the table this year but just about everything else is on it at the University of Illinois if big budget cuts are enacted, top UI officials told lawmakers Thursday.

Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed budget calls for a 31.5 percent, or $209 million, reduction at the UI for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

In separate appearances before House and Senate appropriations committees, UI officials outlined possible areas for cuts: personnel, student employment, extension services, public broadcasting and more deferred maintenance.

But Republican members of both the Senate and the House prodded university officials to seek efficiencies and to embrace reforms, including changes in workers compensation and procurement policies.

At times, lawmakers seemed intent on getting UI President Robert Easter and Illinois State President Larry Dietz (who preceded him in both hearings) to endorse their partisan goals.

It likely was the final appearance before an appropriations committee for Easter, who officially steps down as president in May. "As I walked away, I thought, 'I won't have to do this again,'" he said with a smile minutes after wrapping up the Senate session. "I think the members are truly trying to help us in a very difficult situation. I didn't sense that it was an adversarial conversation at all. It was a conversation where they are trying to deal with some incredibly difficult issues. I don't envy them." 

Although Easter has appointed a "leadership group" to prepare for cuts, he said it's too early to say what the university's response will be once the budget reductions — which are considered inevitable at some level — are enacted.

"But the programs that a land-grand university traditionally has managed and are a service to the public have to be paid by public resources."

In citing cuts to public services — one of the traditional missions of the university — Easter mentioned extension services that are offered in all 102 Illinois counties, and public broadcasting. 

"We provide a myriad of services to the state," he told the House committee. "We operate a public broadcasting station here in Springfield for the benefit of the public. I'm not sure a year from now we can do that. We operate a public broadcasting station in Urbana for the same reason. They're valued. "Can we continue to do that and how do we fund that? One could argue that that should be public money, not tuition dollars that supports those things."

Later, though, Easter said he mentioned the public stations "because I was trying to think of an example that was tangible. I'm no more serious about that than any other thing. I don't want to create anxiety there." UI officials portrayed any tuition increases as a last resort.

This story appeared online in The News-Gazette on March 20, 2015.

Read the entire article online.